Russia Is Down, But Not Out, in Central Asia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened its influence in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan.

Russia is no longer a regional hegemon, which may increase regional instability. Tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are especially dangerous.

Despite Moscow’s diminished influence in Central Asia, regional states cannot afford to completely ignore Russian interests.

Western hopes for Central Asian gas resources to be pumped westwards and circumvent Russia remain unlikely to be fulfilled.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long seen Central Asia as Russia’s “most stable region.” He has regularly exerted influence and political pressure over its leaders. However, after decades of stability, the last year has seen Russia’s influence in Central Asia deteriorate at an unprecedented pace.

Putin’s view of Central Asia as part of Russia’s sphere of influence was not unjustified. During his first twenty-one years in power, Russian relations remained relatively unchanged with all five of the former Soviet Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While the period was not without times of tension—Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution that the Kremlin denounced as a Western-backed “color revolution,” Turkmenistan’s replacing of Russia as its major gas export route with the China-Central Asia pipeline, and repeated spats with late Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov before his passing in 2016 foremost amongst them—at the beginning of 2022 the Kremlin could be confident that it was the pre-eminent power in the region.

Russia’s position was solidified by Kazakhstan’s rapid descent into tumult last January. Protests in Kazakhstan over the cost of living were co-opted by officials disgruntled at their loss of influence two-and-a-half years into the transition from long-ruling former president Nursultan Nazarbayev to his handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The crisis ended only after Tokayev called on the Kremlin-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization to intervene. It did so successfully, with Russian forces helping their Kazakh counterparts to crack down on the unrest. China endorsed Putin’s actions and the West hardly objected.

A year later, however, the situation has been recast entirely. Russia has gone from being the dominant power in Central Asia to one whose influence is clearly on the wane. The change has not been wrought by events within Central Asia itself, but rather by Putin’s decision to vastly expand his long-running war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The attack laid bare Putin’s militarism and precipitated the most wide-ranging sanctions regime against a large economy since World War II. Putin’s desire for a swift and triumphant march across Ukraine into Kyiv and seizure of its territory east of the Dnieper proved a costly fantasy.

Yet a year later Putin has shown no willingness to abandon his desired conquest, even after Ukrainian forces retook significant swathes of territory in the second half of 2022. The full impacts of the war on Russia’s geopolitical position have yet to be fully felt. Fighting continues and sanctions will further constrain Russian state capacity the longer they remain in place.

However, certain conclusions can already be drawn.

In Central Asia, Russia is no longer a regional hegemon. China’s rise had already displaced it as the premier economic power in the region, but as the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan showed, Beijing was happy to let Russia remain the preeminent political actor. Yet just thirteen months on from his effectively unchallenged intervention in Kazakhstan—an event that Putin cast as the death knell for alleged pro-Western color revolutions—Russian influence has diminished dramatically.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Kazakhstan itself. Although Tokayev praised Putin for intervening to save his administration in January 2022, just six months later Tokayev rebuked him, and refused a decoration Putin had planned to award him. The Kazakh government has spent the last year actively reaching out to the West, keen to put a line between itself and the Kremlin. Tokayev also openly welcomed Russians fleeing Putin’s September 2022 conscription, while his government also pressured broadcasters to limit the distribution of Russian state media channels.

The most significant changes in Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia have, however, been economic. The country is the second largest member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, far larger than any of its constituent members other than Russia. But the Kremlin’s longstanding tool of using trade relations to push Kazakhstan to pursue its desired course of action is no longer effective. In response to Kazakhstan’s unwillingness to openly support its invasion of Ukraine, Russia in 2022 repeatedly cut supplies on the Caspian Pipeline Consortium—the key export route for Kazakh oil to international markets. Tokayev’s government, however, was not swayed. It moved to increase exports via Azerbaijan, shipping oil over the Caspian Sea for distribution to Turkish ports via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Although that route cannot replace the capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, Astana recognized that Moscow’s ability to pressure it was limited. Sanctions on Russian crude exports in the form of the G7 price cap that came into effect in December 2022 meant Russia had to find new markets for its own exports, primarily India and China, which also received record discounts on the sanctions-tainted Russian crude.

Kazakhstan is by no means abandoning Russia. Its pipelines have helped ship additional Russian crude to China. But with Russia’s own pipelines to Europe constrained by the oil price cap, the Kremlin had to turn to Astana to help keep them filled. By January 2023, the Kremlin abandoned its strategy of throttling Kazakh Caspian Pipeline Consortium exports, and granted Kazakhstan’s Kaztransoil to use its Druzhba pipeline to deliver oil to Germany and Poland. Kazakh Energy Minister Bolat Akchulakov claimed that such deliveries could reach 1.5 million tons this year—and eventually reach seven million tons per annum, more than a third of Russia’s pre-February 2022 annual exports to Berlin. While Kazakhstan’s oil exports via non-Russian routes grew 50 percent to 1.8 million tons in 2022, the reality is that its geography and China’s ability to buy more discounted Russian crude mean that its prospects for further such growth are limited. But the balance of power in the relationship is far less tilted in Russia’s favor as a consequence of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s influence is also waning in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous state. Led by Shavkat Mirzioyoyev since the death of Islam Karimov in 2016, Tashkent had spent the years preceding the invasion of Ukraine turning the country from a hermit state into one with a more liberal economy, welcoming foreign investors from Russia but also the West. Uzbekistan experienced its own surprise unrest last year when Mirziyoyev’s effort to overhaul the constitution in order to extend his own time in power sparked mass protests in its western Karakalpakstan region over proposed changes that would have removed its nominal autonomy. Rumors spread locally that Russia may have played a role in stoking the unrest after appeals for it to intervene appeared online. But Mirziyoyev’s crackdown proceeded without Russian action (unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). And although Uzbekistan is still happy to welcome Russian investment, it has used its observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union to rebuke Putin’s own attempts to use energy leverage in the region. At a December 2022 Eurasian Union summit, Uzbek Energy Minister Zhurabek Mirzamakmudov said that Uzbekistan would “never agree to political conditions in exchange for gas” in response to Russian proposals to create a Kazakh-Uzbek-Russian gas “alliance.”

Russia also faced new limits to its influence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, traditionally the two countries in the region most dependent on Moscow. The economies of both countries rely on remittances from Russia and while Kyrgyzstan in the past has sought to balance Russian influence by developing ties with the West, it was very much on a course for closer Russian alignment before Putin’s February 2022 escalation in Ukraine. The rise to power of Sadyr Japarov from a jail cell to the presidency in 2021 saw Kyrgyz institutions taken over by a populist nationalist with little appetite for Western democracy promotion, and an affinity for the strong-man image of Putinist politics. Tajikistan was dominated by President Emomali Rahmon, who was long closely aligned with Moscow but whose position was shifted even further in Russia’s favor by the 2021 withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Russia deployed reinforcements to Tajikistan in December 2021.

However, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan clashed repeatedly throughout 2022 amid a dispute over their shared and poorly demarcated border. But Russia—which has bases in both countries—was preoccupied with Putin’s war in Ukraine and made no meaningful intervention. Its major base in Tajikistan also reportedly saw troops drained for the fight in Ukraine. By October 2022, Rahmon himself publicly rebuked Putin, demanding more “respect” for Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization to undertake a monitoring mission along the border. While the organization has said it would be willing to do so, Tajikistan has refused the offer. Russia’s war in Ukraine has limited its ability to police even the parts of Central Asia most dependent on Russian power.

Turkmenistan stands as a case apart. Nominally neutral, it is not a member of any of the Russian-led blocs in the region. Russia pursued a policy in the two years before 2022 of resuming some Turkmen gas purchases to try and provide a new economic basis to their relations after purchases fell precipitously following a mysterious explosion in 2009 and ended completely in 2016. But with Russia now facing a surfeit of its own gas, there is little hope Moscow will be buying much gas from Ashgabat any time soon.

Instead, Turkmenistan has turned to re-engaging with the idea of building a trans-Caspian link brining its gas to the West via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whose strategic position vis-à-vis Russia has also greatly increased as a result of Putin’s attacks on Ukraine—even endorsed the idea in December. While that is no guarantee the pipeline will ever materialize—Russia retains a veto under the 2018 Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea—it does indicate that even leaders willing to work with Russia, like Erdogan, recognize that Russia’s position in Central Asia has diminished. Nevertheless, it remains doubtful Turkmenistan’s government will go far enough in reaching out to the West, as it prefers to deal with a fellow repressive and kleptocratic regime in Moscow.

Last year marked the beginning of the end of Russia’s near-total dominance in Central Asia. The longer Putin’s war on Ukraine continues and the more stringent the international sanctions regime becomes, the greater its impact will be. The geography of the region means that its countries cannot move away from Russia entirely, of course, and some suspect that Central Asian trade has helped Moscow evade sanctions. The region may still be Russia’s backyard, but the gardener is absent—and it increasingly appears that there is little desire for him to return. A new era for Central Asia has begun, and the absence of a regional hegemon means that it is much more likely to be turbulent and possibly deadly.

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